- Nick Drozdoff
"Like Tears in Rain..." Changing Jobbing Skills
I have been a professional musician for 38 years, and I'm NOT retiring any time too soon. I am having WAY too much fun. Things are most certainly different from the the way they they were when I quit my job as an electrical engineer to go into music full time, but every time I get up to practice and see what sort of work is either waiting for me or that I can create for myself I am experiencing a new adventure. What a gas!
Now the title of this post is a reference to the final monologue of the character, Roy Batty (portrayed by Rutger Hauer) in the original Blade Runner movie. It is a cool scene and I am going to include it here for reference (and a bit of fun).
You can find analysis of the scene online, but I have a slightly different take on it.
I have a great many wonderful peers in the music business who have been standing next to me for almost four decades, now. We have experienced many amazing things. If you are "next gen" musician, ask a "more seasoned" musician about his/her experiences. You should be amazed.
I did this when I was a younger musician. I loved hanging out with more experienced (code for older than I was) and picking their brains for everything from advice on how to be a better jobber to what it was like to be working in an era when every TV and radio station had house bands and orchestras; when any bar that wanted decent music had bands instead of iPod mixes; when pit orchestras had thirty to forty musicians and no synthesizers. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.
Those experiences could be in danger of becoming Batty's tears in rain. Don't let that happen. If you're a "next gen" musician, hang out with some older musicians and ask them to tell you the stories. Also, be very mindful of the fact that, one day the shoes going to be on the other foot and YOU will be the seasoned musician! I can hardly believe it, but I have arrived at that point. This both a little daunting and yet fun, at the same time.
My blogs are all about helping musicians in some way, and even with this odd beginning, I want to do the same here. This blog is about what is called in the Chicago area, "jobbing." On the east coast I believe they are called casuals. Chicago used to have a thriving industrial scene (trade shows) but those did off in the 90's. Jobbing still struggles on as a means of making a living for some musicians.
Alas, for ME, my jobbing days seem to be over. This is not by choice. It is also not due some idea that I have let my playing go. On the contrary, since I retired from my day gig, I have almost doubled my average practice time and have set some very specific goals for self actualization as a trumpeter. No, the problem seems to be that many of the band leaders and contractors who used to use me have retired and in some cases even left town. Some have seen their work dwindle due to the changing winds of the free lance professional music scene. I am simply not getting called any more and the younger bands are using THEIR friends. To the credit of the younger musicians I personally know and occasionally have the privilege to work with, it is not because I now have gray hair and have picked up a few pounds. They simply want to use their friends. This is completely understandable.
A firm believer in the concept of a non-zero-sum-game, I am not worried. I know I'll be able to create new opportunities for myself. What I do want to discuss are what the skill sets required for jobbing were when I was getting into the business and compare that to the skill sets required now. Are they different? Is one epoch better or worse for musicians? I am going to enumerate the skills I tried to teach my son, who is now a professional keyboard player and compare that to those his generation find important.
Let me list the skills I would want to share with any musician I might be charged with mentoring.
1.) Know tunes - LOT'S of tunes! Jazz standards, general standards, horn lines from famous old rock tunes, etc. I cataloged the tunes I know and I can play 200 tunes in any key without resorting to looking at fake books. I'm not always strong on the changes of more obscure things, but I can always cover the melody.
When I was a young upstart I learned quickly that you NEVER showed up with a fake book - EVER! This was regarded as a sign of weakness and could end your relationship with contractors. Many if not most jobbing gigs were so called fake gigs. You had to come up with everything from memory.
Jam session etiquette could really be brutal. Again, pulling out a fake book on a jam session was forbidden. If you tried to, you'd be admonished to only call tunes you actually knew. I have a much different attitude on jam sessions these days, but that was the way it was.
There is a secondary advantage to learning many tunes. This becomes fodder for you improvisation vocabulary. They help with everything from quote to general melodic structure.
So, learn many tunes.
2.) Make sure you can sight read and transpose. Yes, when I was coming up, most jobbing dates were fake gigs, but there were enough (particularly towards the end of the industrial show period) gigs where you had to read on the fly, that this was also an extremely important skill. Transposition was also a must. Often singers subbing with bands would do things in different keys, and you simply had to be able to switch around.
3.) Know all your styles: straight ahead swing; jazz, rock, traditional jazz, ethnic music, et al.
4.) Be versatile. You needed to able to play pop, rock, jazz, classical, ethnic, etc.
5.) No matter how hungry you might be, NEVER take a gig you aren't ready for.
6.) Develop your endurance. You often would have to play gigs that just went on and on, and if you complained about your chops, this could haunt you.
7.) Be mindful of your political surroundings. As a trumpeter, if you aren't sure of the "lay of the land," ALWAYS set up on the lowest chair and make it your business to make the lead player sound good with proper support.
8.) Finally are the basic expectations. Make sure to wear the correct clothes, show up in plenty of time for the job, be careful about breaks, don't drink anything but water, don't read books on the band stand, etc.
These are the fundamental skills I would want to see any new player develop.
I have polled several younger musicians who are working a lot to see what they perceive of as the needed skills. I thought it would be interesting to see if we diverge in any way. I heard from Nick Roach on trombone, Mike Kennedy on sax, Drew Hansen on trumpet, and it goes without saying that I regularly communicate with my son, Colin Drozdoff, who is a professional keyboard player. I will list the things that seem divergent. Interestingly enough, there is much.
Things next gen musicians think differently on:
The younger musicians have a much more relaxed attitude towards fake books on the band stand. Everyone I spoke to brings them along, often digital copies on mobile devices, but they have them. It is no longer regarded as a sign of weakness to break one out and doing so will not cause some sort of uproar in the free-lance scene.
That having been said, breaking out a fake book, even an electronic one, is still frowned on by some. Be mindful of your circumstances.
However, ALL of them agreed, without prompting, that it is a good idea to memorize as many tunes and horn lines as possible.
The way I posed my query when I reached out to these musicians was as follows: "how would you advise a player you were mentoring into the business?" One thing that popped up was a tune list. This would consist of jazz tunes, standards and pop tunes you should at least be aware of before you go to gigs. You should memorize them, if you can.
I didn't include this in my skills list above, but I do have a list on my iPhone the I use when I am in a position of calling tunes. Sometimes I remember melodies by need my memory jogged on titles.
Licks and Patterns:
This is an idea that escaped me, and it is a bit specific, but strikes me as something pretty important. In addition to learning many tunes, you should learn patterns and licks that you can deploy on solos when they come your way. Certain styles of music require idiosyncratic styles of improvising and that is important. If you stand up to blow on some pop tune, it might not be wisdom to go off on a Woody Shaw style solo. They crowd wouldn't be likely to get it. They're expecting certain styles of playing that fit the idiom.
This was referred to a language skill in one answer. This seems a good way of thinking.
This is something I never used to think about as a sideman, but it makes perfect sense. One of the next gen musicians keeps a sturdy music stand in his car at all time. He also keeps extra mouthpieces, fake books and a piece of plexiglass.
I have personally been leaving a Hercules folding music stand in my car all the time. I am now going to take a couple of spare mouthpieces and stick them in the glove box.I usually use binder clips on outdoor gigs, so they'll go in the glove box, too.
This diverges from the old school ways because jobbing has changed from the old leader/contractor model in which the leader/contractor provides everything and the sidemen simply walk in, set up and play, to a much more communal effort. I now have to ask what I need to bring to the gig. This is a little inconvenient, but if it can help me get more work, I can handle it.
Don't Be Too Choosy About Gigs:
One of my peers pointed out that you can't be too choosy about taking gigs when you are starting out. You need to take every gig you possibly can. You need to be "seen on the scene."
Go To Hear Other Musicians:
This stood out to me in reviewing the thoughts offered by next gen peers. Emphasized the importance of getting to hear other musicians and go to jam sessions, even if you don't play. You need to interact with other musicians as much as possible.
Networking and tech:
The next gen musicians only just slightly diverged from my list and I listed the several points just above. They did offer some ideas about networking. I went ahead and made that a very specific follow up question. Here are some ideas that developed from tht discussion.
Before I continue, I will say this about myself. I am a baby boomer. Some baby boomers trend to shrink a bit from tech. Some next gen folks poke a bit of fun at their parents for not being tech savvy. In that regard, I am a bit of an outlier, though all baby boomers that I know who are/were teachers are actually quite good at being tech wise. I started using the internet to build a presence for myself on the more level playing field of the world wide web over 25 years ago via list servs and forums. I then had a web site built and broke into social media. I currently completely mange my own web site and have started blogging. I've been recording my own music and sharing it online for years. Nevertheless, it is the next gen musicians who seem to be dialed in on using the internet to build work for themselves. I thought it would be very instructive to get their ideas. Here is what I picked up.
Now this topic is a bit complicated and is such that i 'm not sure I can simply transcribe the ideas shared by my peers. Here is a direct quote from Mr. Kennedy.
"It is absolutely necessary to use technology now. I have been slow to get there myself, as I never liked trends when I was younger and thought all of the social media tech was stupid. Now I’m playing catch up. A friend of mine is always using Facebook as a means to promote all aspects of his free lancing. He posts about his gigs, website, recordings, other people’s gigs, videos of gigs, videos of practice sessions and so on. If you can’t be found on the internet by someone that doesn’t know you, there is a good chance you will be written off. The digital footprint is probably the most important part of a player’s resume now. We live in a society where everyone wants everything 1 minute ago, and if they can’t find you in a google search quickly they will move on." --Michael Kennedy, sax artist - teacher
Mr. Hansen also had some very specific ideas to offer on these lines. I think a direct quote works better here as well. His thoughts are quite important.
"Tech: because fewer people people leave their phones for entertainment, it's crucial to have a presence on social media. It is truly the best way to reach the largest amount of people. It's something that I struggle with. However, the reality is that we are entrepreneurs and need to reach potential listeners. Social media is currently the best tool for that." -- Drew Hansen, trumpet artist - teacher
Later when I spoke with Drew he wanted me to also emphasize the challenge we face with music that is tied to the smart phone obsession, and that is VIDEO. It is increasingly difficult to engage people with music strictly aurally. They have to be visually engaged, as well. In short, if folks can't see something, they aren't as content to listen to this.
I opened with a reference to the "Tears In Rain" monologue from Blade Runner. As you can see from the subsequent discussion, there is an amazing set of skills that my generation of musicians had to develop to work. The new generation of musicians have had to add new skills centered around technology and social media to develop. All of those skills are in danger of vanishing with an increasingly indifferent society when it comes to the artistry that it is to make music - really creative music. We can't let those skills be the tears in rain.
This has become particularly poignant to me as I find myself jobbing less and less for the reasons cited earlier. Personally, I seek out opportunities to use those skills. When I go to jam sessions these days, I go out of my way to avoid use of fake books (I have all of the Real Books - ALL OF THEM - in PDF form on my mobile devices), even with tunes that I am not sure of. I want to challenge myself to use my ears and the skills that I have developed as a jobber for decades. It seems pretty safe to do that now, even with the inevitable misstep when you are straying from your comfort zone on a tune. I love the challenge!
In Roy Batty's soliloquy, he concludes with "time to die." NOT FOR ME, man! I prefer the sentiment evoked by the Dylan Thomas poem: "Do not go gentle into that good night." I prefer to "rage, rage, against the dying of the light."
Heck I'm a TRUMPET PLAYER! We NEVER go along quietly.
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